Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism: A Reply to Wiley, Price, and Sunshine

Conservatives need Charles Darwin.  

Explaining why that is so was the purpose of my article in the Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review. My article was entitled "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism."  This was followed by John West's article criticizing my argument entitled "Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism."  My article can be found online.  Some of the writing in this article came from blog posts herehere, and here.

Last week, the Theology Pugcast had a one-hour podcast discussion of my article.  The three discussants were C. R. Wiley (a pastor in Vancouver, Washington), Thomas Price (a professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary), and Glenn Sunshine (Professor Emeritus of History at Central Connecticut State University).  (I am grateful to Clifford Bates for drawing my attention to this podcast.)

The three discussants reach a common conclusion: Arnhart is wrong because he disagrees with us.  They offer many assertions about how they are right, and I am wrong.  But they offer very little evidence or argumentation to prove their assertions.  Watch the video, if I am wrong, please correct me.  Notice how Price laughs at the beginning, as if it is ridiculous that anyone would disagree with them.

I will comment on nine points of disagreement.


Wiley begins by saying that he was shocked to see my article in The Intercollegiate Review, because while he generally agrees with the articles in IR, he disagrees fundamentally with my article.  When he saw the title of the article, he assumed it would criticize Darwinian Conservatism and support Metaphysical Conservatism; and so he was deeply disturbed to see that it actually defended Darwinian Conservatism.

At first, he seems to deny that there are any Darwinian conservatives, because after all conservatism must be anti-Darwinian.  But then he says that maybe there are some Darwinian conservatives, although he implies that they can't be real conservatives.

He is silent about my history of the incipient ideas of evolutionary conservatism beginning with David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, of how those ideas were picked up by Charles Darwin in his account of the evolution of morality, and of how those ideas were revived by conservatives like Friedrich Hayek and James Q. Wilson.

I set this empirical and evolutionary line of conservative thought against the transcendent and metaphysical conservatism of people like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver.  Kirk said that the "first canon" of conservative thought was "belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty," and consequently "politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature," which assumes "a transcendent moral order."  He connected this to "Burke's description of the state as a divinely ordained moral essence" and Burke's view of history as "the unfolding of Design."  According to Kirk, the primary enemy of this metaphysical conservatism was Darwinian science.  Similarly, Weaver insisted that a healthy cultural order required a "metaphysical dream of the world," so that people could imagine their cultural life as a "metaphysical community" fulfilling a cosmic purpose.  And like Kirk, Weaver worried that Darwin's theory of evolution denied this "metaphysical dream" of cosmic order by explaining human beings as products of a natural evolutionary process governed by material causes that were not directed to any cosmic purposes.

Against this metaphysical conservatism, Hayek objected to the "obscurantism" of a conservative attitude that rejected Darwin's theory of evolution as morally corrupting.  He elaborated his view of Burkean "Old Whig" liberalism as belonging to a British empiricist evolutionary tradition contrasted with a French rationalistic design tradition.  In the evolutionary tradition of Hume, Smith, and Burke, Hayek explained, "it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility--the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution."  Hayek suggested that Darwin's theory of biological evolution was derived from the theories of social evolution developed by the Scottish philosophers.

Notice that both sides of this debate appeal to Burke.  As I show in my article, one can see in Burke's writings the split between the metaphysical and evolutionary versions of conservatism.  On the one hand, Burke says that human morality must be grounded in a religious metaphysics of cosmic design; and he cites Plato's political theology of design (in Book 10 of Plato's Laws): the authority of human laws must be founded on a religious belief in cosmic moral order as part of a divinely designed universe in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished.  

On the other hand, Burke rejected Richard Price's religious metaphysics of history and the Christian Platonism of his moral philosophy.  Price argued against the moral naturalism of Hume and the Scottish moral sense philosophers, and he scorned the idea that morality was rooted in natural moral sentiments. He contended instead that moral knowledge was a rational activity of the mind in grasping the eternal and immutable metaphysical truths of God.  Against Price's metaphysical morality, Burke evoked those "natural feelings" and "moral sentiments" that show "the natural sense of right and wrong" and "the moral constitution of the heart" as the empirical foundation in human nature of moral experience.  Here he showed his agreement with the ideas of Hume and Smith, which would later be taken up by Darwin.

Early in his life, Burke had expressed his skepticism about metaphysical causes in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  He had explained that in looking for the "efficient cause" of sublimity and beauty, he did not pretend to explain the "ultimate cause," because he was pursuing a purely empirical inquiry into sense experience:

"That great chain of causes, which linking one to another even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any inquiry of ours.  When we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depths.  All we do after, is but a faint struggle, that shows we are in an element which does not belong to us."

I assume that Wiley, Price, and Sunshine would say that I am completely wrong about this history of conservative thought as split between empirical evolutionary ideas of natural morality and transcendent metaphysical ideas of cosmic moral order.  But I can't be sure because they are silent about all of this.


They do say a lot, however, in criticizing the title of my article.  "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism" implies that Darwinian conservatism is not metaphysical.  On the contrary, they say, my Darwinian naturalism is actually a metaphysics; and so the dispute here is between two different metaphysics.  This must be so because any fundamental view of reality must depend on some metaphysical first principles about the ultimate ground of all things.  A naturalistic metaphysics assumes that Nature is the ultimate ground of Being.  A theistic metaphysics assumes that God is the ultimate ground of Being. 

If we define metaphysics as the branch of philosophy concerned with the first principles of all things, then Darwinian naturalism might seem to be metaphysical.  But as I indicated in my article (pp. 22-23), I was using the word metaphysical in the sense of supernatural or transcendent, which is recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary, and in that sense Darwinian naturalism is not metaphysical.

Actually, I have argued that while Darwinian science, like all natural science, requires a methodological naturalism that allows for the possibility of a metaphysical theism, it does not require a metaphysical naturalism that denies metaphysical theism.  A methodological naturalism means that we must adopt as a methodological principle that all of our scientific explanations must be grounded in the laws of nature without any appeal to supernatural revelation.  But this methodological naturalism leaves open the possibility that as a matter of faith we might move beyond nature to nature's God as the First Cause of nature.  This is the basis for those scientists who have embraced theistic evolution or evolutionary creation--the idea that God created the Big Bang and the laws of nature that have allowed the evolutionary unfolding of cosmic history. 

In fact, Darwin himself was open to a theistic metaphysics, because as I have indicated in a previous post, he accepted the Thomistic principle of "dual causality" in distinguishing "secondary causes" from "primary causes." While God might by understood by faith as the First Cause of all things, the evolution of species occurred through the "secondary causes" of natural evolutionary laws, and consequently there was no need for God to miraculously intervene in nature to specially create each species.  Thus Darwin allowed for the theistic evolution that has been embraced by people like C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, Deborah Haarsma, and Alvin Plantinga.  I have written about this in a previous post.

Darwin concluded--in both the Origin and Descent--that there was no necessary contradiction between his theory and religious belief. In the concluding chapter of the Origin, he declared: "I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one." He quoted a remark by the Reverend Charles Kingsley: "it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws."

His famous last sentence of the book evoked the image of the Creator as First Cause, borrowing language that echoes the Biblical book of Genesis: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

This opens the possibility of a theistic evolution for those who seek a reconciliation of religious belief and evolutionary science.

At some times in his life, Darwin identified himself as a theist.  At other times, particularly in his later years, he identified himself as a skeptic or agnostic.  But he always insisted that he was not an atheist.  In any case, he never believed that the Genesis story of Creation in six days was to be taken literally.  I have written about some of this here and here.

Nevertheless, the critical point for my argument is that Darwin could explain the evolution of morality and social order as a purely natural process.  He recognized that while religious belief was often important in the cultural evolution of morality, this moral evolution could be understood as a matter of natural law without any necessary appeal to a supernatural revelation.

Wiley, Price, and Sunshine repeatedly say that this naturalistic explanation of moral evolution must fail because nature isn't self-explanatory without God.  Nature must have its transcendent source in God.  Ultimately, we must ask: Why is there anything at all?  The only possible answer, they say, is God.  But then, of course, we must ask: Why is there a God?  And why is He the way he is?

Here we face the problem of ultimate explanation: all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of the world as the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained.  To the question of why nature has the kind of order that it has, the only reasonable answer is that we must accept this as a brute fact of our experience.  That's just the way it is.

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Well, why not?  

There is nothing in our experience of the world that would make it likely, or even comprehensible, that something would have the power to create everything in the world out of nothing.  Indeed, we cannot even understand absolute nothingness, because we have no experience of absolute nothingness.  Therefore, if we are reasoning from our ordinary experience of the world, the existence of an omnipotent God who created everything out of nothing is highly improbable or even incomprehensible.

If we appeal to the existence of God as the ultimate cause of nature's order, we still cannot explain the ultimate cause of God.  Burke pointed to this problem in speaking of the futility of looking for the "ultimate cause."  It might seem very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but it is just as unlikely that God would exist uncaused.  Since we have never directly observed God creating everything out of nothing, but every day we observe the causal regularities of nature, the existence of an uncaused nature is to the skeptical thinker far more probable than the existence of an uncaused God.

As Darwin said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."  Metaphysical conservatives like Wiley, Price, and Sunshine say the mystery is solved by believing in God as the Creator ex nihilo.  But that commits the fallacy of explaining a great mystery with an even greater mystery.

Moreover, it should be noted that the Bible never says that God created everything ex nihilo.  That "out of nothing" doctrine was imposed by some Christian theologians.  But the first two chapters of Genesis suggest that the Creator was working on some preexisting formless matter, which is not nothing!

Consequently, in our search for ultimate explanations, we must appeal either to nature (if we're a skeptic) or to God (if we're a believer) as the unexplained ground of all explanation.  Thus does the natural desire to understand lead us to this most fundamental of choices--nature or God, reason or revelation.

Darwin was a Socratic scientific philosopher who chose reason over revelation, but with the understanding that reason cannot refute revelation.

I have written many posts elaborating these points.  Some can be found herehereherehereherehere, here, and here.


At this point, we might wonder whether this metaphysical debate makes any difference for our moral and political life.  If I am right, it does make a difference, because metaphysical conservatism inclines towards theocracy.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine object to this by saying that a theocratic (or God-centered) metaphysics does not necessarily dictate a theocratic politics.  "We're all in a theocratic reality," Price asserts.  But this need not dictate theocratic politics, Sunshine says, if we see that God is interested in human liberty.

In my article, I pointed to some examples of metaphysical conservatives who support theocracy.  I noted that the Intercollegiate Review had published an article by Remi Brague with the title "Are Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible?"  His answer to the question was "No."  He argued that moral and political order is impossible without the theocratic appeal to the law of God as the metaphysical standard for all human action.  

I also noted Dinesh D'Sousa's book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, in which he tried to persuade American conservatives that "conservatives must move closer to the traditional Muslims."  Traditional Muslims believe that America's liberal morality will destroy their religion and their way of life.  American conservatives, D'Souza insisted, should admit that the Muslims are right.  America really is morally corrupt.  American conservatives should join with fundamentalist Muslims in fighting against secular morality and fighting for theocratic morality.

Wiley, Price, and Sunshine are silent about D'Sousa's book.  But Wiley asserts that I have distorted Brague, because what he calls theocracy does not mean theocratic politics.  After all, Wiley observes, some conservatives like Doug Wilson have argued for "theocratic libertarianism."

This is a confusing use of the word "theocracy" that departs from the root meaning of the word.  The English word "theocracy" is a translation of the Greek word theocratia that was coined by Josephus as a term for ancient Israel as ruled by the Mosaic laws.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines "theocracy" as 

"A form of government in which God (or a deity) is recognized as the king or immediate ruler, and his laws are taken as the statute-book of the kingdom, these laws being usually administered by a priestly order as his ministers and agents; hence (loosely) a system of government by a sacerdotal order, claiming a divine commission; also, a state so governed: esp. applied to the commonwealth of Israel from the exodus to the election of Saul as king."

This doesn't look like libertarianism to me.  On the contrary, it looks more like the theocratic regime sought by conservative Catholic integralists who argue that politics must order the lives of citizens to direct them to the eternal salvation of their souls, and for this the temporal power of government must be subordinated to the spiritual power of the Church.  Some integralists point to the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX in medieval France as their model.  This is a Christian version of Israel under the Mosaic law or of Plato's theocratic city in the Laws. 

This suggests to me that deciding whether a G0d-centered metaphysics requires a theocratic political regime will depend upon whether one is looking to the God of the Old Testament or the God of the New Testament.  As I have indicated in a previous post, Roger Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for denouncing the Puritan rule there as a theocracy enforcing Mosaic law that was contrary to the New Testament, where the Christian churches were voluntary associations that did not persecute heretics or unbelievers.  In Rhode Island, he established a political order that tolerated all religions and even atheists.  This showed how God-centered Christians could reject the theocratic God of the Old Testament and embrace the Lockean liberal principles of toleration and religious liberty suggested in the New Testament.  One can see this, for example, in the Christian Lockean liberalism of C. S. Lewis.


In a Lockean liberal society with religious liberty, where people will not be persecuted for heresy, blasphemy, or atheism, some people will be guided by a religiously-informed cosmic teleology, while others will be guided by the immanent teleology that is part of our evolved human nature.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine say that evolutionary science cannot support any teleology.  Price says that I illicitly import formal and final causes into my reasoning.  But they assert this without responding to my argument that while the evolutionary explanation of morality cannot appeal to the cosmic teleology of the metaphysical conservatives, the evolutionary explanation does recognize the immanent teleology of living beings.  

Cosmic teleology is the metaphysical conception of all of nature as an organic whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or Creator.  By contrast, the immanent teleology of organic life is manifest in the goal-directed generation, structure, and activity of individual organisms.  Even if evolution by natural selection is not purposeful, it produces organic beings that are purposeful.  Plants and animals grow to maturity, and once grown, they act for ends set by the functional nature of the species.  Human beings act to satisfy the natural desires of their evolved human nature.

Darwin recognized the teleological character of his evolutionary science.  In an article in Nature, Asa Gray wrote: "let us recognize Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology; so that instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology."  In response to this, Darwin wrote to Gray (June 5, 1874): "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially and I do not think anyone else has ever noted that."  When Darwin read some of Aristotle's biological works, he saw that he and Aristotle were in agreement about biological teleology.  I have written about this.


If Darwin has a teleology, Sunshine suggests, it must be an immoral teleology of survival of the fittest leading to genocide.  This must be so because Darwinian evolution is driven by competition within the species.  He quotes this passage from Darwin's Descent of Man:  "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races" (1871, I:201; 2004 [Penguin ed.], 183).

When Sunshine says that evolution is all about competition within the species, he ignores Darwin's insistence that the evolution of human morality arises from human sociability and sympathy (Descent of Man, I:70-106; 2004, 120-151).  It is true, however, that Darwin recognized tribal conflict and group selection: "It is no argument against savage man being a social animal, that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other; for the social instincts never extend to all the individuals of the same species" (I.85; 2004, 132).  Darwin thought that one of the "chief causes of the low morality of savages" was "the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe" (I.97; 2004, 143).  

Nevertheless, Darwin looked forward to the cultural evolution of morality towards a universal humanitarian sympathy: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races" (I:100-101; 2004, 147).

This cultural evolution of morality allows us to recognize the immorality of tribal warfare, such as that endorsed by the Old Testament.  Moses said that Yahweh told him to wage holy war in which the captured enemy towns would be put under a "curse of destruction," so that "thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).  So in the holy war against the Midianites, the soldiers of Israel killed all of the adult men, but they saved the women and children as captives.  When Moses saw this, he was enraged.  He ordered them: "So kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves" (Numbers 31:7-20).  Our evolved moral sense allows us to see the evil in such tribal brutality.

But then what should we say about the passage quoted by Sunshine, where Darwin speaks of the "civilized races" exterminating the "savage races"?  We should notice, first of all, that unlike Moses Darwin did not sanctify this as commanded by God.  We should also notice that Darwin was reporting what he had observed during his trip around the world on the Beagle, and that he recognized the evil in such tribal cruelty.  As I have noted in a post on this, Darwin condemned the Europeans who were exterminating the indigenous people of South America, Australia, and New Zealand.  Even if the Europeans were "a little superior in civilization" and superior in military power, Darwin observed, they were "inferior in every moral virtue."

Thus did Darwin show how an evolved moral sense could support his moral condemnation of European tribal brutality.


And yet Wiley, Price, and Sunshine say that Darwin failed to see that his morality was derived not from natural human evolution but from his Christian culture.  Although Darwin was not a Christian, he still held onto a Christian morality.  Even if he thought he was an atheist, he was a Christian in his moral practice.  Because if he had really been an atheist, who believed that there was no God to institute moral law by divine command, then he would have believed that "If God is dead, everything is permitted," and he would have become a murderous psychopath like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine talk a lot about this point when they say that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Jurgen Habermas are actually "Christian atheists" insofar as they show the cultural influence of Christian morality.  

Wiley, Price, and Sunshine have picked up this idea from some remarks by Friedrich Nietzsche and Jordan Peterson's interpretation of those remarks.  They are very enamored of Peterson, and they say they want to have him appear in a Theology Pugcast podcast.

I have criticized this Nietzsche/Peterson/Dostoevsky idea that morality is impossible without the Christian belief in morality as created by Divine Command.  Some of my posts on this can be found herehere, and here.  On a related point, I have argued that the modern idea of universal human rights can be grounded in Darwinian biology without any need for religious beliefs (look herehere, and here).

In these posts, I have argued that Peterson's reasoning is silly.  The only reason we don't commit murder is because we believe that God commands us not to murder.  So if we believed that God was dead, we would commit murder.  Therefore, if we don't commit murder, our actions show that we are not atheists.  But then, eventually, as modern atheism becomes such a deeply felt belief that it becomes expressed in our actions--once we have consumed God's corpse, and there's nothing more to eat--we should expect that we will all become murderers.

If this were true, we would expect to see empirical historical evidence that religious belief is correlated with a low homicide rate, and declining religious belief is correlated with a high homicide rate.  But there is a lot of evidence for declining violence over the past centuries, with some of the steepest declines in the less religious countries. 

In fact, even Peterson cites Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature as supporting this conclusion: "The probability that a modern person, in a functional democratic country, will now kill or be killed is infinitesimally low compared to what it was in previous societies (and still is, in the unorganized and anarchic parts of the world)" (58).  Oddly, Peterson does not notice how this contradicts his prediction that the modern death of God must necessarily turn us all into murderous Raskolnikovs.

It's surprising to me that in all the commentary on Peterson that I have read, no one has pointed out this fundamental contradiction in his arguments.

Moreover, Peterson ignores all the problems with his Divine Command Theory of morality.  For example, what should a father do if God commands him to murder his son (Genesis 22)?  Is murder the right thing to do when God commands it?  Amazingly, even Thomas Aquinas says that murder is right if God commands it (ST, II-II, q. 64, a. 6, ad 1).  Would Wiley, Price, and Sunshine agree with this?


But having argued that a naturally evolved moral sense is a more reliable guide to morality than Divine Command, I know that Wiley, Price, and Sunshine would object by saying, as Wiley does, that Darwinian morality is crudely reductionist because the only moral ends are survival and reproduction.

Surely, however, survival and reproduction are important moral ends.  Whenever Moses has to give a reason for the people of Israel to obey his laws, he says that obeying the law will allow them to live and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1, 4:40, 5:29, 6:1-3, 24, 8:1, 11:8-9, 20, 22:7, 23:9-14, 25:15, 30:15-20).  The natural desires for life and parental care are human universals.  Do Wiley, Price, and Sunshine deny this?

Of course, survival and reproduction are only the minimal conditions of morality.  I argue that the natural desires for life and parental care are only two of 20 natural desires that constitute the natural standards for moral order.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine are silent about this.


In all of my responses here to Wiley, Price, and Sunshine, I have assumed the validity of Darwinian evolutionary science in explaining human nature and human morality.  But they say that Alvin Plantinga has proven that a purely naturalistic science cannot claim any rational validity unless it accepts a metaphysical theism. 

Plantinga argues that the theistic doctrine of the human mind as created by God in His image provides the necessary support for the validity of human thought, including the validity of modern science. If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else. Insofar as science--including evolutionary science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

Remarkably, however, Wiley, Price, and Sunshine invoke Plantinga's argument without even mentioning, much less answering, the powerful criticisms of that argument.  It's as though they think they need not concern themselves with the criticisms, because Plantinga agrees with them, and therefore he must be right.

The weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is his assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.

But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. Even Plantinga concedes (in his debate with Daniel Dennett) that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators."  So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurately detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue. Similarly, the immune system of the human body must accurately indicate the presence of foreign bodies and then accurately devise responses to destroy the invaders. But then Plantinga argues that these accurate indicators don't require true beliefs. It's not clear that the frog has any beliefs. And the human being is probably not even aware of what the immune system is doing exactly.

What this shows, of course, is that much of an animal's adaptive behavior through mental activity does not require conscious reasoning at all. But for those animals who do develop some capacity for conscious reasoning--and most preeminently human beings--the accuracy of this conscious reasoning will be important for adaptation. The highest mental capacities of human beings are so biologically expensive in terms of the investment of energy they consume that it is implausible that evolution would have produced them unless they improved the ability of human beings to track the truth about themselves and their environment. Again, this is going to be fallible, but it's implausible that human beings could be naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.

And yet that's exactly what Plantinga asks us to imagine--that we could have been naturally evolved for a state of complete and perpetual delusion. Having taken this step of absurd Cartesian skepticism, he then tells us that the only escape from such skepticism is to assume that God would never allow this to happen. But as always is the case for the Cartesian skeptic, this all depends on imagining scenarios that are utterly implausible and unsupported by even a shred of evidence.

Only those who find Cartesian skepticism plausible will find Plantinga's argument plausible.  Indeed, Plantinga's argument originated with Descartes.

For example, consider this possibility for human evolution suggested by Plantinga:

So suppose Paul is a prehistoric hominid; a hungry tiger approaches. Fleeing is perhaps the most appropriate behavior: . . . this behavior could be produced by a large number of different belief-desire pairs. . . .

Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. . . . Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it, but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. . . . or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a regularly recurring illusion, and, hoping to keep his weight down, has formed the resolution to run a mile at top speed whenever presented with such an illusion; or perhaps he thinks he is about to take part in a sixteen-hundred-meter race, wants to win, and believes the appearance of the tiger is the starting signal; or perhaps . . . . Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior.

Sunshine quotes from this passage about Paul the prehistoric hominid as an example of Plantinga's profound insight.

Well, yes, these weird stories are all logically possible, as modern philosophers like to say. But they are also utterly implausible, because there is no evidence that anything like this could have happened in human evolution. Plantinga's claim that there is no clear connection between adaptive behavior and true beliefs in evolutionary history depends on fantasies of his imagination unsupported by evidence. He has to do that, because if he actually looked at the evidence of human evolutionary history bearing upon the emergence of human mental faculties, he would be faced with evidence for the evolution of human cognitive capacities for exploring the world that are generally reliable, even if fallible.

He would also see evidence that human beings can use their fallible mental capacities to correct their mistakes. After all, the very capacity to recognize our fallibility presupposes our skill for reliable reasoning about ourselves and our world. There are good reasons to believe that this can be explained as an outcome of a natural evolutionary process in which divine intervention was not necessary.

I have written about Plantinga's argument hereherehere, and here.


One example of our evolved ability to use our fallible mental capacities to correct our moral mistakes is our ability to see that while slavery has been practiced for thousands of years, it has always been "a great crime," as Darwin called it (2004, 141-42).  And here using our evolved moral sense to correct our mistakes includes correcting the Bible's endorsement of slavery.  

I developed this argument in the last section of my Intercollegiate Review article.  Remarkably, however, Wiley began the Theology Pugcast podcast by saying that they would ignore this section of the article.  He offered no explanation for this except to say that I had "an ax to grind" in this section.

In this section of the article, I claimed that the contrast between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism was illustrated in how they differ in their understanding of the moral debate over slavery.  Darwinian conservatism can recognize the immorality of slavery as contrary to our evolved moral sense.  Against this, my critics have argued that any moral condemnation of slavery must ultimately rest upon a religious metaphysics that sees slavery as contrary to God's law.

Hume, Smith, and Darwin saw slavery as a violation of the moral sentiments--particularly, those sentiments that enforce justice as reciprocity.  Slavery is a form of social parasitism, as can be seen in slavery among ants.  And since human slaves are not naturally adapted to their enslavement, they will resist their exploitation; and slaveholders will have to impose their rule over their slaves by force and fraud.  In the effort to justify slavery, slaveholders will espouse a fraudulent ideology of paternalism that claims that the slaves are naturally benefited by their enslavement.  Proslavery ideology in the American South asserted that black slaves were physically, morally, and intellectually inferior to whites in their biological nature, and so these black slaves were happier when they were enslaved to white masters.  One of the primary motivations for Darwin's writing of The Descent of Man was to refute this ideology of scientific racism by showing that all of the human races were members of the same human species with the same moral sense that condemned slavery as parasitic exploitation.

The critics of Darwinian conservatism have insisted, however, that a Darwinian account of morality cannot sustain a moral case against slavery, which requires a universal morality based upon the cosmic moral law of a religious metaphysics as taught by the Bible.  The problem with this reasoning is that the Bible supports slavery.

Metaphysical conservatives like Richard Weaver have admired the "older religiousness" in the American South before the Civil War, and they have recognized that part of the Southern religion was faith in the Bible as supporting slavery.  According to Weaver, slavery "is well recognized in the Old Testament, and it is not without endorsement in the New; indeed, a strict constructionism interpretation almost requires its defense."  Similarly, historian Mark Malvasi (writing in the conservative journal Modern Age) has seen the American South as the last bastion of the "Old Republic," which was founded on "a genuinely Christian slavery."

Malvasi identified the Reverend Frederick Ross's Slavery Ordained of God, published in 1857, as one of the best statements of the biblical justification for slavery.  Ross adhered to a divine command theory of morality.  Ross insisted that to look to natural standards of right and wrong independently of God's will was atheism.  (He condemned the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration of Independence as an expression of Thomas Jefferson's atheism.)  We know what is right and wrong only because, and to the extent that, we know whether God has declared it right or wrong.  And for this, we must turn to the Bible as God's revelation of His will.  Therefore, we cannot know whether slavery is right or wrong except by seeing what the Bible teaches about God's will as to slavery.

Ross noted that the Old Testament clearly endorsed slavery.  The ancient Israelites practiced it, and God commanded it.  Similarly, in the New Testament, the Christians accepted slavery as practiced by the ancient Romans.  Paul taught slaves to obey their masters, just as he taught children to obey their parents and wives to obey their husbands.

The dispute over the Bible's handling of the slavery issue divided the Christian churches in America before and during the Civil War.  Americans had looked to the Bible as the revelation of the sacred order of the universe that would resolve all moral disputes by the cosmic authority of God's law.  But in this greatest moral crisis in American history, the Bible failed to provide any clear answer in the dispute over slavery between North and South.  As Abraham Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

In such a situation, human beings must appeal to some natural moral sense like that espoused by Hume, Smith, and Darwin.  Darwinian conservatives can explain this moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature and as shaped by moral sentiments, moral traditions, and practical judgments.  Unlike the metaphysical conservatives, who claim that all social order must conform to some supernatural order of intelligent design or divine creation, evolutionary conservatives see social order as the product of ordinary human experience as guided by nature, custom, and prudence.

That's why conservatives need Charles Darwin.

I have written about the debate over slavery and the Bible here and here.

I have invited Wiley, Price, and Sunshine to write a response to this post.  If they do so, I will be happy to post it here.

1 comment:

Alexander Gieg said...

Thanks, this post was quite informative!

In regards to point 3, and this remark of your: "This doesn't look like libertarianism to me," I think I know what they were referring to, so I may help shed some light in it.

What happens is that, according 1 Samuel 8, at one point the Hebrews envied the other countries having kings and decided they wanted one too, so they demanded prophet Samuel to crown one. Samuel disliked this, prayed to God, and He told him to warn them this would happen (verses 11-18):

"This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day."

It therefore follows that in the system of government that existed before, called Judging, these things (taxes, civil and military drafts, supporting a permanent army, commandeering the best of everything etc.) didn't happen.

And I remember reading a historian once explaining the Judging system as also having the following characteristics:

Political power was an all-or-nothing proposition. Some families had generational military duties, and with it came absolute power, but this power could only be exercised in times of war and for the purposes of defense against external aggression. In times of peace, in contrast, those families had no power, needing to tend to their lands and produce food by themselves as everyone else. It therefore worked more as a loose, decentralized federation of micro-states than as a big integrated, centralized government. And the economy was heavily trade-based, thus with a strong focus on voluntary exchanges.

On the flip side, something very not-libertarian was that every 49 years all debts were cancelled, to reset the economy and avoid debts growing exponentially, specially because they tended to end up in enslavement due to debts.

And on the topic of slavery, in regards to your point 9, one interesting aspect of Hebrew slavery, at least when it came to enslaving other Hebrews, was that it was for a limited time, seven years. After that an Hebrew slave earned their freedom back or, if they wished to remain serving their (former) owner, could ask for their enslavement to become permanent. This sounds crazy, but it seems many did so, which suggests Hebrew enslavement wasn't particularly bad, or at the very least was less worse than being free but homeless. Evidently, such niceties as guaranteed freedom weren't valid for non-Hebrew slaves.

No idea how these details were dealt with by 19th century Christian apologists of chattel slavery and scientific racism, though.